Sundance and Emmy award-winning filmmaker/photographer, Lauren Greenfield, has spent the last 25 years documenting the impact of consumerism on youth, gender, body image and our wider social mores. Deepening and developing the themes she first began exploring in Thin and Queen Of Versailles, her latest feature Generation Wealth examines extremes of wealth and addiction through a series of intimate portraits filmed around the world. From disgraced Wall St financiers to Chinese etiquette coaches, Russian trophy wives to LA teenagers every inch the adult, Generation Wealth is a rigorous historical essay, entertaining expose and deeply personal journey which bears witness to the human cost of capitalism.
With clarity, humour and self-reflective insight, Greenfield holds her subjects up as a mirror to our own desires, forcing viewers to acknowledge our shared participation in a consumer culture that’s always striving for more. Ahead of the film’s release this week we sat down with the director herself to find out more about why she feels it’s important to distinguish between the trend of consumerism and those who participate in it, how wellness has been co-opted by capitalism as another commodity to be bought and sold, and where else we can look for value and meaning beyond material gains.
You’ve spent the bulk of your career documenting extremes of wealth yet your work is more critical of consumerism as a whole, rather than of the individuals who participate in it. What distinguishes the two for you?
After studying anthropology and working for National Geographic, I went back to LA to take a kind of sociological look at my own culture. I’m really interested in why people do what they do, what makes us want, and desire, and act in the way that we do, especially when sometimes it’s irrational. I think there’s a lot in my work that’s about human nature. It’s about how we all might make similar choices if we were in the same spot. I think that’s particularly the case with kids, kids are kind of a blank slate. I started with kids in LA and it became an interesting way to look at adult culture – kids are so innocent in the way they reflect the broader culture. One of the first interviews I did was with Adam, the 13 year old surrounded by go-go dancers at the Bar Mitzvah in this nightclub, he talks about how extravagant Bar Mitzvah’s are, with people spending $50,000 and that you have to spend that much or you were ‘shit out of luck’. But then, at the same moment he says that money ruins kids, and he felt like money had ruined him. I was really blown away by how subjects, even when they’re in the eye of the storm, right in the middle of it, can also be the best social critics. People can be so perceptive and honest about what they’re seeing. I feel like my work is only possible thanks to the generosity and truthfulness of the subjects so I try to tell their stories in a way that lets others walk in their shoes. I think it’s a lot more interesting to understand what makes someone tick than to be critical of another person. A big part of my work is about how we’re all complicit in this system. I often go to people in extreme situations or marginal subcultures as a way to look at the mainstream and how we’re all affected. A lot of things I’m documenting are all around us, constantly, so we can’t necessarily see it clearly without it being in an extreme form but the point is not to speak about these small extreme cases, the point is that we can empathise and see ourselves reflected in their situations.
How do you find your subjects?
All different ways! I come at this, as you see in the film, from a career in photojournalism. For a long time I was making a living working for magazines, and before that I was doing personal work. I’ve always kind of done the personal work alongside the magazines, I’ve always kept both strands going. Most of it is also just being on the ground and meeting people and talking to them, and one person leading to another. I do my own research, sometimes beginning with a magazine assignment, sometimes going back to something I explored a while ago, and trying to look at it in a different way. My very first project, with the LA kids, was me going back home and starting with the high-school that I went to. I had a connection which allowed me to begin – from there you have to get to know people and establish trust.
I feel like you touched on this in the first answer you gave, and it definitely struck me as one of the most important themes of the film, but what role do you think family plays in helping exacerbate or alleviate some of the problems of excessive consumerism?
I think that’s really the heart of the matter, and I kind of stumbled across it whilst making this film without meaning to. Part of why I went back, is because I felt like a lot of the things I’d seen in the early 90s have kind of exploded. In past generations we had more countervailing values to the values of corporate capitalism, and the values of the media and the influence of peers and popular culture. The traditional institutions like religion, shared secular morality, family and community, these are things that kind of formed us as much as the television. One of the things I started seeing in LA in the 90s was a kind of disengagement of the parents – kids seemed to have a lot more autonomy. Throughout my work on Fast Forward the parents just weren’t around much. It was a world of kids and peers and media. As traditional institutions have weakened other influences have gotten so much more powerful. I guess that’s why I ended up thinking of family as the antidote – in a way I got there through the insights of the subjects who come to that conclusion. They’re chasing these things that they think are going to bring them happiness – money, beauty, sex, youth, fame – and what they find is that what really matters is family and love and community. In a way it’s the biggest cliche in the world, and one I wouldn’t dare make my thesis, but I was really moved by the way the subjects arrive at that conclusion. Florian who was such an extreme embodiment of greed, and Jackie, and even the fisherman from Iceland – all of them come back around and say that love and community is what gave them redemption and a renewed sense of values. That was really powerful, and it forced the same kind of waking up in my own life.
Do you think the film focuses more on motherhood than fatherhood? Or is it quite balanced?
That’s a good question – I think, I hope it’s an even balance. In my story, Frank shows the importance of fatherhood. He’s able to compensate for the imbalance in my life in a way that has consequences for all of us and some huge positives – especially for him and the kids. The story that I’m telling in my own life is a complete non-story for a man – it’s the way men normally live. The consequences that I experience are also the consequences that many men experience. I hope the moral of the story is non-gendered family.
Do you think it’s a documentary about money or addiction?
I think it’s about addiction. I had this experience when making my first film Thin. I thought I was making a film about eating disorders, but I discovered that being in the clinic to treat an eating disorder is like being in some kind of rehab. The eating disorder was a coping mechanism in the same way that you might use alcohol or drugs – you use it to numb pain or deal with trauma. I had that feeling in this movie too. You think it’s about money but really it’s about chasing something that we think will bring us happiness and fulfillment. For me the addiction metaphor was so powerful – you see with Cathy looking for the perfect body, just as somebody with an eating disorder wants to get to a certain weight, or somebody at a bank wants to make a certain amount of money before they retire. Whatever that number or goal was, once you got there it wasn’t enough. That was really powerfully shown to me in Queen Of Versailles, you’ve got this family and they live in a 26,000 square foot mansion, and that wasn’t enough. That extra bathroom that you want is just the same as an extra 50,000 square feet. That’s part of the mechanism of capitalism, if you were satisfied you wouldn’t buy anything more. That’s why I’m not critical of the subjects because I think capitalism is designed to exploit these desires. That’s also why I included myself, I definitely have had all of those feelings myself. When I was in high school, I wanted designer clothes and I wanted to be popular and I wanted to be thinner. Trying to break down and deconstruct that culture has been a big part of what I’m doing, whilst also trying to explain why we should not criticise and judge.
Have you come across an alternative system of value?
In a way this movie is surprisingly optimistic or hopeful, the book ends really dark but with the film I feel like I found a possibility for insight and agency. At a basic level it’s about the possibility of waking up to what’s around us. Almost all of the characters in the film have these terrible crashes, it’s like hitting rock bottom when you’re an addict, there’s a chance for recovery and it doesn’t exist before those crashes because at that point people are still on the hamster wheel. But that’s not to say it’s a foregone conclusion. One of the big disillusionments for me doing was that I thought the financial crash was a moment of insight where we’d realise what our values were and what we’d done wrong. But just like an addiction relapse is right around the corner and unless you have a really profound structural change. Unless there’s a community to support that change there’s a tendency to go right back. There’s a possibility for change – even as we zoom towards an unsustainable future, there’s still the possibility for insight.
Do you worry about the commodification of ‘wellness’?
I’m victim to it! You know it’s funny, I used to say to my husband people who are really into yoga are the people who are the most not yoga, but I feel like we’re kind of all in that now. My son does meditation and he introduced me this meditation app. For me it’s not coming from a place of spirituality or trying to unlock a higher consciousness, it’s more a need for survival in the modern world. Things have gotten so busy and in a way so unhealthy that wellness is something that everybody’s seeking, and of course capitalism being what it is, wants to control that. If you have an addictive personality or if we’re living in a culture that fosters addiction you can replace negative ones for more positive ones. It’s part of the same culture of consumerism but people in their choices can also use them for their own good.
How do you feel the pressure of consumerism impacts culture?
I’m gonna argue for art in a very strong way – it’s art and culture that allows us to have empathy, and to question what’s around us. Authentic culture is being destroyed by corporate capitalism, but it’s authentic culture which allows us to understand who we are and where we come from. That’s the other piece besides family (and I’ll include the free press too) that allows us to question and to reflect – it’s the antidote to Generation Wealth. Just because a lot of our media companies are owned by Rupert Murdoch and corporate, for-profit companies, do they not fulfil a function? Yea I would prefer that we had a stronger public funded media in this country but on the other hand I wouldn’t take what we have away. I think it plays a really important role. I don’t know if you know a spot called Like A Girl, it was a commercial, funded by Proctor & Gamble, and yet in many ways it’s had the most positive effect of anything I’ve done. We can use these media. I started working about 10 years ago in advertising because I saw the negative power it can have. I thought, if you do something positive with that medium, that’s a huge sphere of influence. A lot my work, even for magazines, has had a subversive quality – I might be talking about the pressures to be thin with photos I’ve taken for the pages of the women’s magazines or the fashion spreads.
Is there a particular thought or idea you want people to take away from the film?
It’s about getting back to what matters. Life is short, make sure you spend time with your family, with friends, because you can’t get that back. It does seem like the biggest cliche in the world but I feel like it was really true for the characters and for me. Wake up to what you already have, look around you and see the wealth that’s there.
[via Little White Lies]